UNTITLED, c.1980

Important Australian + International Fine Art
3 May 2023


(1908 - 1987)
UNTITLED, c.1980

synthetic polymer paint on linen

136.5 x 235.5 cm

bears inscription verso: E083

$40,000 – $60,000

Private collection, Melbourne

Catalogue text

The mid-1970s saw Roger Kemp standing tall within the Australian art scene. It began with the pioneering abstractionist being awarded an OBE for services to Australian painting. This was followed by the National Gallery of Victoria commissioning from him a splendid suite of tapestries to hang in its Great Hall; while, not to be outdone, the still to be opened National Gallery in Canberra purchased a strong selection of his works for its embryonic collection. Then a nationally touring survey exhibition, curated by Monash University’s Professor Patrick McCaughey, was being arranged—which firmly cemented recognition of his lifelong contribution to modern Australian art.
These were to be Kemp’s most productive years. The artist might have entered his sixties, but he now seemed to bristle with creative energy. Weekdays were spent in his city studio, an old warehouse near Spencer Street station which Kemp leased with the young sculptor George Baldessin.  Kemp used the entire upper floor in the narrow brick building as an immense painting studio, working until late making his critically acclaimed Sequence series. 
As this untitled early piece from that series demonstrates, the Sequence paintings were generously wide horizontal abstractions fashioned from structured geometric forms. It’s a bold, gutsy composition painted on linen canvas he had unrolled then fixed directly to the studio wall. An initial sense of visual pattern is deceptive. Kemp may have improvised, developing an increasingly intricate design as he went. But circles, squares and bars in a narrow palette were adroitly balanced, so that a blue diamond to the left of a central white oblong answers a dark turquoise rectangle over on the right. Kemp also did not work in-the-flat across his paint surface, instead deliberately suggesting that his forms levitate in space.  This sees him adding a thick black outline to shapes, darkening some pale areas so they drop away, and emphasising tonal values—means for optically conveying distance while setting a contemplative mood.
Kemp always had a weighty point he wished to press. Through geometry he wished to convey the perceptions of physicists and scientists, how they discern rational systems behind our seemingly haphazard world, with his overall Sequence paintings conveying the restless turmoil of the cosmos. But this untitled piece has a more direct goal, evoking the built environment around Kemp’s warehouse-studio. The artist teases his audience visually by using geometric forms to hint of what was a city zone under active redevelopment: squares, oblongs and discs strikingly echo an urban grid of inner-city streets, alleyways and buildings viewed from above, each floating white square denoting a skyscraper to be constructed.
Painted during this intense creative period, Untitled (Sequence), c.1980 shows Roger Kemp in top form. One can appreciate why The Australian’s critic Christopher Allen was transfixed by a room of these later works in the NGV’s 2020 Kemp retrospective. ‘These paintings look more beautiful and impressive,’ Allen declared in his review, insisting how in visual terms this peak in Kemp’s production ‘can be said, without exaggeration, to be breathtaking.’1
1. Weekend Australian, 11 – 12 January 2020